Houseplants: Turning An Eye Indoors

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With Labor Day now past us it’s tempting to think the gardening season is winding down. The lawn is dry and hungry. The main vegetable garden is looking a bit beat, save for the large and tempting cabbages that just swell and swell and the Brussels sprouts that are just getting their act together.Ending?

I just planted radishes, several types of lettuce and spinach, and will push the envelope with a few carrots and beets. The last of my perennials arrived in late August in the form of Primula elatior Gold Lace that I’ve lusted for since I saw a picture of it blooming at the Victoria Botanical Garden in Canada. Can’t wait for these to flower next year.

And since the chipmunks have decided that my spring-planted Lilium Royal Sunset was the greatest place on earth to dig, tunnel and gnaw … those have to be reorderd (sold out, sorry) and replanted. It’s hard to hate those cute little rodents, and seeing one sitting atop my little garden Buddha making the Buddha look like it had a Davy Crockett hat on just took the cake.

But there’s something entirely different on my mind: houseplants.

Every week I do a tour of several local garden shops and I’ve marveled at the opportunities to grab magnificent-looking and reasonably-priced plants to use indoors. Not something that most of us do in the summer months, but now’s the perfect time to shop for these plants. Bought as the nights turn cooler and the humidity begins to drop, they can easily be acclimated for indoors, where they hopefully give us the same pleasures as our outdoor gardens even when it’s 10 degrees and the once soft and malleable ground has become frozen and forbidding.

All summer I was drawn to the benches at my favorite garden center that had a display of wonderful Rex begonias. The colors have been incredible, with varying leaf shapes on plants that look flawless. Streaked, curled, veined and splashed in pinks, purples, creams, greens, silver and burgundy, they’re grown primarily for their foliage and not their insignificant flowers. Shallow-rooted and growing from rhizomes, they like a lot of humidity, but if you can’t provide that through the winter they can be grown in glass cases or terrariums, where they can thrive.

Some may go dormant in the dead of winter and can be revived in the early spring, but these are not for those heavy-handed on the watering. They prefer a moist soil but will easily rot in wet soil.

Ah, but what rewards when you’ve got the trick. And of course there’s a bonus for anyone who masters these plants. In the spring or summer you can do some plant magic by learning how to propagate them. The method is pretty fascinating because you do it by cutting sections of the leaves or by setting a leaf on the proper soil mix, making cuts or holes in the leaf and if the leaf is kept warm and in indirect light in three to four weeks new begonia plants appear as plantlets where the cuts or holes have been made. Suddenly one turns into dozens and your next summer’s garden has new possibilities.

These are great plants for indoors or out (no, not hardy), but now’s the time to shop around for them then read up for more information on their care. And yes, there are several hardy begonias that will thrive in your shady to partly shady garden. Among them is begonia grandis, which comes in white and pink forms with the traditional begonia-type foliage on stems reaching up to a couple of feet.

I’ve also been struck by the range of coleus that are available, and you can still find some in garden centers. These too can make great houseplants for the bright to sunny windowsill, but there is a caveat. Earlier in the summer when I wrote about propagating plants, I mentioned that coleus were among the easiest to multiply from simple cuttings or slips. This is a good thing, because coleus are annuals and they need to be cut and restarted several times a year to keep the plants fresh and full of new foliage. Don’t let them go to seed or they’ll lose their luster and vigor.

And there’s a bonus with these plants as well. Coleus can be grown as “standards.” That’s a plant that is trained to grow as a single stem or trunk to several feet in height. The plant is trained to grow a single vertical stem and at the height that you determine you begin to pinch the growth tip. Each time you do this pinching two or more new shoots will try to emerge. When they do and the new tips are long enough, pinch again. A tweezer is great for this or a tiny sharp scissors. If you’re fanatic about this pinching, a ball-shaped concentration of foliage will develop and you’ll have a semi-woody trunk with a perfectly round ball of coleus foliage at the top that can be a foot or more in diameter.

This project is best started in the fall to early winter with one of your newly rooted cuttings and by summer you’ll have your coleus bush. Remember though, don’t let the plant form any flower buds, or all your hard work will just go to ,,, seed.

So, it’s the perfect time to buy plants that will come inside. You can still keep them outdoors for another three to four weeks and during that time keep an eye on them for signs of insect or disease problems. Not all plants will tolerate our indoor growing conditions, which are usually darker, cooler and drier than what they’d prefer, but in the next few weeks you can gradually ease them in. Do this by moving them very gradually from brighter light into more shade, and hold back on fertilizer. Small amounts are fine, but by November most of these plants should be on a very, very lean diet of nutrients until next spring.

Try to resist buying plants at supermarkets and big box stores. They may look great but this beauty is very much skin deep. These plants are grown by cut-rate growers whose sole purpose is to mass-produce numbers of plants on very quick schedules. Insect and disease control is secondary, and often they are shipped in from places like Canada (yes Canada) or the deep South.

Most of the plants you find at our local garden centers may cost a bit more, but the quality is incredibly better and the growers take much better care in producing quality plants that are more likely to survive and thrive. Try to steer clear of great-looking palms … they never seem to last and often develop disease or insect problems that are nearly impossible to overcome. Look for shorter, stockier plants in general, as these are the ones that will take time to grow, fill in and mature. Taller plants with longer stems will get leggy quickly once indoors.

Don’t forget your own houseplants, either. Now’s the time to get them out on a warm day and give them a shower. Wash off the dust and grime, inspect them for insects and treat as needed. In most cases oils and soaps will do the trick, but make sure you’re using the right product, as some plants can be sensitive to both. Keep growing.

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